Louisiana governor eases virus rules, lets bars open indoors
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s bars can reopen indoors, restaurants can hold more customers and churches won’t have capacity limits for worship services, under loosened coronavirus rules announced Tuesday by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The eased “Phase 3” restrictions — which come as Louisiana’s new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to drop — will take effect Wednesday across the state, unless a local mayor or parish president enacts tougher limits. Louisiana’s statewide mask mandate, in place since July, will remain.
The new requirements will stay in place until March 31.
“We’re currently moving in the right direction and have been for several weeks now, and certainly, we’re all gratified by that,” the Democratic governor said. “We know, however, we still have a lot of work to do before we get out of this pandemic.”
Restaurants, cafes, spas, salons, movie theaters and other nonessential businesses that had been limited to 50% of their occupancy limit can move to 75% capacity. The exception is for gyms, which Edwards is requiring to stay at 50% capacity.
Music will be allowed at indoor locations again, though with a list of requirements for venues and no dance floors allowed. Conferences and other gatherings can restart at convention centers, if the events get fire marshal approval for the setup.
Bars had largely been limited to outdoor service, delivery and to-go orders unless they have licenses to operate like restaurants. But under Edwards’ new rules, bars will be able to let customers back inside at 25% of their occupancy limit, with a maximum of 250 people.
If the bars are located in a parish that has seen low rates of coronavirus tests returning positive for two weeks, they can increase their indoor seating to 50% capacity, up to 250 people. Patrons won’t be able to walk back and forth to the bar to order drinks, however. Direct table service will be required. An 11 p.m. shutdown time for bars will stay in place.
Religious services will have no limits on size, but Edwards’ new executive order still will require social distancing at churches. And different rules and limits will exist on other, non-worship service gatherings at churches.
Among other restrictions, indoor events such as weddings will be limited to 50% of a building’s capacity, with no more than 250 people. Crowds at sports arenas will be limited to 50% capacity.
The leader of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Stephen Waguespack, said in a statement that the governor’s announcement was “an encouraging light at the end of a long tunnel, but our state still has tremendous economic challenges to address.”
Many of the capacity limits are similar to what Edwards enacted in September, but the governor toughened the rules in late November as Louisiana saw its third coronavirus surge.
Since January, the state has seen sharp drops in confirmed cases of COVID-19 and people hospitalized with the disease. Hospitalizations stood at 629 patients Tuesday after topping 2,000 in January.
Louisiana’s daily average of new cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks has fallen 21%, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The percentage of tests returning positive for the disease has dropped to 5% statewide, after reaching more than 13% at one point in early January.
Meanwhile, 14% of the state’s population has received at least the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have been available since December. More than 368,000 people have gotten both required doses, according to the state health department.
A third vaccine, the single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson will start rolling out in the state this week. But the Edwards administration said states aren’t likely to receive additional shipments until the end of this month or later.
Edwards received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday. He announced that all state lawmakers are newly eligible for shots, with plans to allow vaccines for House and Senate staff ahead of the April start of the legislative session.
Louisiana ranked 34th among states Tuesday in the number of vaccine doses administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state fell behind in its vaccine distribution because of a week of icy, snowy weather.
Despite the loosened restrictions, the governor’s chief public health adviser Dr. Joe Kanter cautioned that people should continue to take precautions: “Do not equate the relaxed measures with there being zero risk.”
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